One day I was walking through the 30th Street train station in Philadelphia when I heard someone shout, “Hey you!” Surely this wasn’t meant for me. I was a stranger to Philadelphia after all. But this was followed with,
“Boy! Don’t you hear me calling you?!”
I turn around this time and see a somewhat familiar looking face.
“Aren’t you a Mason?” he asks.
As I walk towards the gentleman I say “Yes, I’m Glenn.” Then as I get closer I exclaim, “Oh My God! Mr. Region!”
Mr. Region was my high school biology teacher. He had the same Isaac Hayes bald dome, the same deep scratchy voice. He didn’t appear to have aged a bit. But I was about forty-five years old. How in the world did he recognize me? Could it have been my “stunning” performance in science class that made him remember me? (More on that below.)
Mr. Region was a task-master and he brooked no excuses. It was awesome to see him after so many years. We exchanged email addresses and kept in touch. I wasn’t a teacher at the time, but when I became one, I let him know that I capture a bit of him in my teaching style.
As I’ve written before, students often thank me for the effect I’ve had in their lives. From time to time I reflect upon the teachers I’ve had who made an impact upon me.
There was Mr. Edwards, the math teacher I wrote about earlier who nicknamed me “Sorry”. He believed, correctly, that I was a lazy student. He dared me to do better. But I remember him for much more than that. He came to our school in the early 70’s. For the first time we had a young Black male teacher to respond to and admire. I cannot understate what that means to a young Black teenager.
Then there was Mr. Byers, another Black male math teacher who soon joined our school. He was my geometry teacher when I was in the ninth grade. While I excelled at math, geometry was a bit of a challenge for me. One day I was supposed to be at an afterschool tutoring session so that I could improve my grade and be better prepared for the next test. I completely forgot about it. I was at baseball practice that afternoon. There I was shagging fly balls in the outfield when I see Mr. Byers storming across the schoolyard with a frightening scowl on his face.
“You are not doing your job!” he barked at me as he got right up in my face.
“I forgot,” was all I could muster to say.
“You are not doing your job!” he barked again.
I should point out that Mr. Byers was married and a father as well. He saw life through the dual lenses of parent and teacher. He proceeded to tell me exactly what my job was. I was one of about twenty-five ninth grade students taking 10th grade geometry. I was one of two Black students in this class – Jane was the other.
“Your job is to let the white kids know that Black kids are just as smart as they are, and you are not doing your job!”
My fourteen-year-old self knew that he was right. Mr. Byers also knew how important baseball was to me. We worked out a schedule that allowed me to make both baseball practice and my games while receiving tutoring to catch up and succeed in geometry. I also took my “job” much more seriously.
Another educator who made an impact was Mr. Gonser. I remember him as a sort of James Caan with designer glasses. He was a science teacher. I hated science! Let me repeat myself – I hated science!
One day the two of us were engaged in a conversation about why we needed to take science. I challenged what osmosis and photosynthesis was going to do for me in the long run. His response to this didn’t skip a beat.
“You need to learn these things because I believe that a mind should be taught to think.”
Wow. And what was my seventeen-year-old comeback to that one? Absolute silence and a nod in agreement. I try to impart this wisdom to my students to this day. Mr. Gonser’s insight is a “kissing cousin” to my catchphrase to students to “choose to think”.
I ran into Mr. Gonser a few years ago. We hadn’t seen each other in over forty years. He of course looked his same suave self to me. As I approached him I was about to tell him who I was. As we shook hands he gestured for me to wait. He looked at me for a moment and said “Mason…Glenn Mason.” I was stunned. I’m still stunned. I have trouble remembering students’ names after a three-day weekend. I told him that I was a teacher now and how I’ve kept with me the wisdom from that day.
Then there was Ms. Pace, my French teacher. (Full disclosure here: All the guys in Ms. Pace’s class had a crush on her. She was a beautiful brunette who’d wear the occasional 70’s mini-skirt.) As I’ve written earlier, I am language-challenged. I took French in 8th, 9th and 10th grades as well as two semesters in college and I still can’t really speak the language. But Ms. Pace made France come alive for me.
Through song – Sur le Pont d’Avignon – and even comic strips – Asterix the Gaul – Ms. Pace made France this exciting and interesting place. To visit one day became a dream for me, a culture and a heritage that I wanted to explore firsthand. Thankfully, I’ve been able to visit quite often.
Then of course there were Mr. Moore and Mr. Maisel — my high school history teachers. One very tall and gregarious, the other short, gruff with a faux temper. (Guess which one I took after?) These two men planted seeds of history knowledge that found fertile soil. My route to becoming a history teacher was an indirect one, but in many ways the start of the journey began with these two educators.
Any time I hear mention of the Iroquois Nation, I’m brought back to Mr. Moore teaching us about the Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga. Mention Charlemagne or The Holy Roman Empire, I’m back with Mr. Maisel telling us about the emperor’s crowning on Christmas day in 800 AD.
There were certainly other teachers who made an impression on me. I recognized their gifts back then, and even more so today. I hope to give back to my students a bit of what these men and women gave to me. Yet, I’m pretty sure my students want me to do this without the mini-skirt.